Not just a coach: The spotlight and the pressures of leading Kentucky basketball

  • Covers college basketball
  • Joined ESPN.com in 2011
  • Graduate of Minnesota State University, Mankato

LEXINGTON, Kentucky — Rex Chapman couldn’t stop laughing.

It was 1986 during his first practice with Kentucky, where he starred for two seasons before he was the eighth pick in the 1988 NBA draft.

Former coach Eddie Sutton had walked onto the Rupp Arena floor with a large jewelry box. Inside, there were the five bejeweled Southwest Conference championship rings Sutton had won during his time at Oklahoma State.

“Boys,” he told his team, “this is what you’re playing for.”

And that’s when Chapman, the only Kentucky native on the roster, began to chuckle. He grew up in Bowling Green, Kentucky, and he understood Kentucky basketball was second only to God, depending on the household. To Kentuckians, Kentucky basketball is what the Dallas Cowboys are to Texans or what the Yankees are to New Yorkers. It’s everything.

“I started to laugh because I thought it was a joke,” Chapman said. “I was like, ‘No, we play for Final Fours at Kentucky, and anything else is a disappointment.'”

Those expectations have fueled the pressure-cooker that surrounds John Calipari — who “politely declined” ESPN’s interview request for this story — as he prepares the sixth-seeded Wildcats to face 11-seed Providence on Friday, a year after losing to Saint Peter’s in the first round and two years after an abysmal 9-16 campaign.

There is good news, though. The No. 1 recruiting class in America, anchored by top 2023 prospect D.J. Wagner, will arrive soon. And Oscar Tshiebwe & Co. helped the program rally and secure a respectable seed in the NCAA tournament this year. But most of the highs end there.

In 2012, Calipari won a national title in his third season at a school that does not hold ceremonies for teams that only reach the Final Four. That perennial hunger for a national championship can fuel the support and also turn up the pressure on the leader of the program. The eight-year Final Four drought at Kentucky has made the fan base antsy, and Calipari’s lifetime contract (he has a $40 million buyout) did not stop the tweets and late-night phone calls to local radio stations calling for a change earlier this season.

“I think Kentucky basketball is like a religion in the state,” said Jack “Goose” Givens, an All-American at Kentucky in the late 1970s. “I can get fan mail from a kid who is 8 years old or a woman who is 80 years old. It affects them the same.”

Some of the tension around Calipari had simmered when it became clear that Kentucky would be safe on Selection Sunday. Then Kentucky lost its first SEC tournament game against Vanderbilt, its second loss to Jerry Stackhouse’s squad in nine days.

Per the team’s supporters, this could all descend into chaos again if Kentucky gets bounced early in the NCAA tournament for a second year in a row. Every coach in the NCAA tournament feels that pressure. The head coach of Kentucky’s program, however, endures a level of scrutiny no other men’s basketball coach in America faces. Because he’s not just a coach. He’s closer to royalty in these parts. But that crown comes with a cost.

Hours after Kentucky’s loss to Vanderbilt in Nashville, Tennessee, on Friday, Ryan Lemond, a longtime fan and local radio personality, jumped into his black 2018 Chevy Equinox and raced up I-65 North back to Lexington. He, like a multitude of fans, had been frustrated by another tough loss.

With another early loss in the NCAA tournament, Calipari’s approval rating will drop, he said.

“I’m getting messages that say, ‘Fire Calipari,'” Lemond said as he drove home from the SEC tournament. “There have been a lot of critical comments. They have to win in the first round. They absolutely have to win the first round. That Kentucky mystique? Those days are long gone.”

One day in the early 1990s, Rick Pitino looked out his window and couldn’t believe what he was witnessing.

One-by-one, cars would drive into the cul-de-sac where his family had just built their house. Some of the people would take pictures of the head coach’s new home. But others would use shovels to scoop dirt from his front lawn, place it in a bag and return to their vehicles.

“I said [to my wife], ‘This is going on long?'” Pitino, who won the 1996 national title with Kentucky, told ESPN. “She said, ‘Every Sunday this goes on. You’re at practice. Every Sunday, this goes on.’ So I realized the magnitude of Kentucky basketball back then.”

After he led the team to the national title, Pitino became a hero for the Kentucky fan base. At Kentucky, he never experienced the turbulence that has defined Calipari’s recent years with the school. But he understands what Calipari has felt this season.

“I handled it like a mayor in terms of just shaking everybody’s hand, hugging all their children, taking pictures whenever necessary,” said Pitino, who’s now in his third season at the Iona helm. “I just embraced it. After eight years, it was time to go. I just had fun with it. I always called it ‘Camelot’ because for eight years I got treated so well … I didn’t have a bad day at Kentucky.

He added: “Now anytime you stay at a place like [Calipari] or me at Louisville, you’re going to have your ups and downs because you stay so long.”

At Kentucky, the men’s basketball program has cultural, social and economic impacts. With $22 million in ticket sales from men’s basketball in fiscal year 2020, Kentucky’s athletic department still made a profit the year the NCAA tournament was canceled because of the pandemic. During the 2015 SEC tournament, the year the Wildcats finished 38-1, Kentucky fans reportedly purchased more than 40% of the available tickets (the average ticket package cost $924 that year) on the secondary market. And Rupp Arena season tickets are sold out each season with the exception of limited packages in the upper level that are distributed through a lottery system.

“Winning programs, and particularly winning championships, we know leads to lots of other good institutional benefits,” said Kirk Wakefield, executive director of the Center for Sports, Strategy and Sales at Baylor. “So we know that after national championships in football and basketball that applications go up to the university, donations go up to the university. And guess who needs more good and better students and more money? Universities.”

In 2020, Forbes listed Kentucky men’s basketball as the most valuable college basketball program in America, with a $31.2 million average profit over a three-year span. The program spent $17 million on men’s basketball last season, which was more than Kansas, Duke or North Carolina, according to U.S. government data. And this year, four of the top 10 TV ratings for college basketball games involved Kentucky (through Feb. 5, according to sportsmediawatch.com).

“I graduated in 2012 and [Kentucky] looks a lot different now, and it’s hard to think that athletics didn’t play some role in that,” said John Cox, director of public affairs for the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce. “New dorms, new research buildings and all kinds of new facilities over there.”

That financial pipeline — billionaire booster Joe Craft funded a portion of the team’s $30 million practice facility, the Joe Craft Center — impacts the state’s entire economic landscape, directly and indirectly. Cox said pitches to companies that want to do business in the state often include a subtle mention of its most popular team. Kentucky men’s basketball has been one of the state’s most important public relations initiatives, per local officials, and it has also spawned Wildcats-based businesses that ebb and flow according to the team’s results.

Joe Kawaja, the co-founder of the Fan Outfitters stores that sell UK apparel at multiple locations in Lexington, said his company enjoyed record profits in the weeks after Kentucky’s 2012 national title run. After Kentucky lost to Saint Peter’s last year in the NCAA tournament, however, his business took a significant hit.

“The loss to Saint Peter’s was probably the largest dropoff that we’ve ever seen in business after a season ended,” Kawaja said. “It really affected our business at least for the next 30 days, which were very, very, very slow. That Saint Peter’s hangover was a long one.”

The emotional snare that captures the entire fan base, however, has also made Kentucky a juggernaut within the sport.

For those who enjoy its spoils, life is good.

“You don’t have a wedding when a Kentucky game is going on,” Pitino said. “You don’t have a funeral when a Kentucky game is going on. Every single person [in Kentucky] is buying into that Kentucky basketball game that night. And then, the next day that’s all they’re talking about.”

Ramel Bradley averaged 10.4 PPG under Tubby Smith and Billy Gillispie during four solid years with the program. After his basketball career, he returned to Kentucky, where he’s now the community director for AppHarvest, a food distribution program. His status as a former Kentucky player, he said, helped him get the opportunity.

He said the fans’ adoration for former players sometimes surprises him. He knows multiple people who’ve named their dogs “Ramel” after him and others who’ve even gone further than that to express their admiration for the program.

“I have dogs, I have [people’s sons] named after me,” Bradley said. “It’s like the Yankees or the Knicks. It’s just embedded in the culture. It’s wild, man.”

That’s the good side. But the unquenchable desire to win can also create the frigid climate that had surrounded Calipari and Kentucky prior to its latest run.

“It can be like a blanket of depression over your shoulders because it feels great when you know everybody in the state shuts down everything to watch you play,” Bradley said. “But when you don’t win a game or you make mistakes on the court, that carries over into your regular life. Even though you’re a young man, a student going to class, that affects you. You’ve got students looking at you going, ‘Oh man, you didn’t make that shot, y’all ain’t making the tournament.’ It puts you in a place to become a grown man very fast.”

Chapman said he’d often stay at his apartment rather than go out on the weekend because of the overwhelming attention attached to playing for Kentucky.

“I was pretty reclusive,” he said. “You’re young and you don’t know who likes you and who doesn’t. That’s a regret. It was difficult to go out because it was hard to be anonymous.”

Lemond has been a Kentucky basketball fan for 50 years. Through KSR, the largest media hub and messageboard for Kentucky fans, he hears the praise and the grievances.

The latter has been the norm this season after last year’s finish. When Kentucky won four in a row in February, the optimism briefly returned, although it did not last. In recent weeks, it hasn’t been uncommon for a discouraged fan to call KSR’s postgame radio show after a loss and declare, sometimes through tears, that they’ll never support the program again under Calipari.

That sentiment, Lemond said, comes from a genuine place.

“The people save up their money all year to come to games,” Lemond said. “For them to be let down like that is unacceptable.”

Calipari has had other periods of disharmony with the program’s fan base, but this season’s discord was magnified because it followed an offseason dispute with Kentucky football coach Mark Stoops, who has elevated that program in recent years.

During a summer exhibition trip to the Bahamas, Calipari told reporters his program needed funding for a new practice facility because Kentucky is a “basketball school.” That prompted Stoops to fire back and tell Calipari “don’t demean” his program. Mitch Barnhart, the school’s athletic director, called Calipari’s comments “unfortunate” and suggested a new practice facility was not on his agenda.

But despite the program’s recent lull and Calipari’s self-inflicted drama, there still no denying his accomplishments, including the continuous stream of elite talent he recruits, and a 14-year run that most programs would love to have as their own. He also has the charisma to handle the attention and expectations, Lemond said.

“It takes a special person to sit in that chair,” Lemond said. “There is no doubt. You not only have to be a great basketball coach and a great recruiter and do everything on the floor, but you also have got to understand you are the most popular man in that state and the fans love and adore you. They know where you eat and what Dunkin’ Donuts you go to every morning. They know where you ride your Vespa on the side streets. You are their hero.”

Jeff Sheppard, who won national championships at Kentucky in 1996 and 1998, believes Calipari is still qualified for the role, which is why he supported his son, four-star recruit Reed Sheppard, when he made the decision to join Kentucky’s top-ranked 2023 class.

“One thing I can say about [Calipari] is he’s tough,” Sheppard said. “He has gone through so many different scenarios with the teams that he’s coached, he has a level of toughness that the elite, experienced, high-level coaches have. At the same time, he’s a human being, so he needs a break. He needs people in his life to encourage him. He needs to be able to be frustrated sometimes.”

Sheppard said he has also tried to prepare his son for the fanaticism he’ll endure as a player for that program. He still experiences it years later. When his 1998 national title team was honored earlier this season at a game, the JumboTron showed all the SEC awards and titles he’d won throughout his career. Sheppard said he doesn’t have anything to commemorate those SEC achievements. No certificates or trophies. He didn’t get any rings for them either, because that’s not what Kentucky celebrates.

“I think as long as Reed just enjoys the ride and focuses on his team, listening to his coach, all of those simple cliches … that stuff works,” Sheppard said. “I think the best athletes can do that.”

Over the past month, the Wildcats have made trackable improvements. Per barttorvik.com, Kentucky has been the 18th-ranked team in America since Feb. 1. But CJ Fredrick, Cason Wallace (a projected first-round pick in this summer’s NBA draft) and Sahvir Wheeler have all endured injuries in recent weeks, so Calipari’s group could be short-handed or at least hampered in the postseason. (Wheeler, who hasn’t played since Feb. 4 because of an ankle injury, is the only member of that group who missed the SEC tournament). Still, if Kentucky suffers another upset in the NCAA tournament, the chatter about life without Calipari will return, for better or worse.

“Because you’ve got more eyeballs on you at any point in time, it’s really important to get the right guy at that particular spot,” said Michael Roach, an associate economics professor at Middle Tennessee State University who has studied the impact of NFL coaching hires. “You can kind of see this with Alabama football over the years. I think those are reasonable comparisons. … The downside of getting it wrong becomes worse.”

The weeks ahead will play a factor in the future of Kentucky men’s basketball and conclude this unsteady chapter for the Wildcats. Perhaps the fans at a subdued Big Blue Madness, the team’s version of midnight madness, in October 2022 could sense the uncertainty ahead.

“And I’m really liking his team, so why don’t we stop talking and let’s go have some fun?” Calipari said to the crowd at Rupp Arena before an intrasquad scrimmage during the event.

About six seconds of muted applause and cheers followed.

Back in 2013, Calipari’s program had just suffered a tough year that ended with a loss to Robert Morris in the NIT. But Kentucky fans filled Rupp Arena for that edition of Big Blue Madness and hoped for a thrilling season.

When Calipari took the stage back then, he spoke like a head coach who understood the responsibility that came with the job.

“This, this is an incredible night to celebrate the things that make our program great, that make the Commonwealth of Kentucky’s basketball program the best in the country,” Calipari said at the time. “You are part of that program, the Big Blue Nation, the Sixth Man of Kentucky basketball.”

For 23 seconds, Kentucky fans screamed while Calipari smiled. It has been some time since he’s heard those same cheers.

“The roller coaster that a lot of us go through is magnified at Kentucky,” Pitino said. “It’s always much worse than it really is and it’s always much better than it really is. It’s always exaggerated.”

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